By Lauren Kawana
With her iPhone in hand and Google Translate at the ready, Meredith Lee had one week in Japan to find what she was looking for. The Palo Alto native traveled through Yokohama, Tokyo and Kyoto, on a mission to find sources of washi.
Washi, or Japanese paper, is made of plant fibers and has traditionally been used for things like calligraphy, books, origami, and even clothing. Lee was looking specifically for chiyogami, or yuzen washi, which is made from mulberry fiber and easily recognizable by its colorful, ornate designs.
These designs are created through multiple layers of silk screenings, applied by hand, one color at a time. Many washi have as many as ten layers of color, Lee says. Ask her to pick a favorite hue and she’s rendered speechless.
A longtime crafter, Lee was looking for products that would inspire a whole new wave of makers and DIYers to use washi. After a whirlwind visit to 20 different suppliers across Japan, she found one factory and two businesses that will let her sell their handmade paper through her company, The Rare Orchid.
On November 1, Lee launched a Kickstarter campaign to get her new venture off the ground: an e-commerce site that will sell washi direct from Japan, along with her own line of washi wedding products which include cards, invitation belly bands, envelopes and favor boxes. Lee’s goal is to raise $17,000 by Thursday, Dec. 11 to help her acquire the Japanese washi as well as produce an introductory order of her wedding items. As of today, she has raised nearly $8,000.
Lee, 33, was fascinated by washi as a young girl. “I started collecting beautiful paper I would see around Japantown and other places,” she says. “I love that it’s an art form and I love that it’s handmade.”
In 2003, the UCLA grad moved from California to Hawaii and began crafting part-time. By 2006, she was using sheets upon sheets of washi to create her popular clothespin magnets, which were vibrantly painted and embellished by pieces of the intricate paper. After encouraging success in the Hawaii craft fair market, Lee traveled nationally to trade shows and quit her job as a social worker to focus solely on the magnets. She was hand-making 3,000 clothespins a week and soon needed to outsource manufacturing to small family-owned factory in China. At her peak, Lee was selling in over 600 stores nationwide.
But when the economy took a turn for the worse in 2007, many of Lee’s clients, who were small mom-and-pop shops, stopped ordering or simply went out of business. “I was stuck with a lot of inventory and I lost 65 percent of my sales in one quarter,” Lee says. “I struggled to dig myself out of that hole.”
She sold her truck and took out loans to cover her losses. She began selling products like magnets, key chains and notepads to Hawaii’s ABC Stores, a giant chain which caters to tourists. But she says there wasn’t much room for creating new products and she missed the creativity of crafting.
This April, she decided to move home to Palo Alto and get back in the business of washi. After buying it from wholesalers for years, she’s now excited to source paper directly from Japan and provide a wider variety to fellow crafters in the U.S. Full sheets of washi are about 2 feet wide and 3 feet long, and can retail for around $16.
“I have been doing the craft circuit here in Cali, and I definitely met some other people working with washi that are excited,” Lee says about her new venture. She has also been successfully selling test supplies of washi paper on Etsy, an online arts and crafts marketplace. “People love the paper—it’s just about getting it out there.”
If her Kickstarter is successfully funded, Lee also plans expand her website with video tutorials of her own washi crafts which she hopes will inspire people to purchase paper and make their own items. “It’s fostering creativity and enabling people to do it,” she says.
One eye-catching item featured on her Kickstarter page is an obi for a bride’s wedding gown—a seamless combination of washi and fabric, created by her friend Yumi Ishihara. “I can’t think of everything people can make with washi,” Lee says with a laugh. “I enjoy seeing what other people can make.”
Jim Nagareda of Nikkei Traditions in San Jose’s Japantown was one of the first to sell Lee’s trademark washi clothespin magnets and remembers the economic hardships she faced, which hurt his store also. But Nagareda isn’t surprised that Lee has bounced back.
“Meredith’s got that entrepreneurial spirit,” he says. “It’s exciting to be around her because she’s always thinking about the next thing she wants to do. And she doesn’t think small.”
Nagareda says he likes that Meredith’s venture will support paper-makers in Japan who may not otherwise have access to a bigger market, and he shares her hopes that it will encourage more artists to create quality products with washi.
Nikkei Traditions was originally established by Nagareda and co-owner Pam Yoshida to support local crafters but “We’re having a harder and harder time finding people that will make things for us,” he says. “Our store was 60-70 percent craft people when we first opened. Now it’s probably flipped because we just can’t find the people that are making stuff.”
Another concern is the loss of Asian Pacific-oriented crafts. He says that more crafters are making things with more contemporary American prints than cultural designs.
Nagareda says Lee’s biggest obstacles are getting people to appreciate the quality of handmade washi paper from Japan despite its higher price point and ensuring that they’ll opt for that over cheaper versions from China or Korea. “I believe in her and hope that she succeeds,” he says.
Like any seasoned entrepreneur, Lee knows there are challenges ahead, but she says the appeal of washi isn’t as niche as it may seem. “Washi is really not just for Japanese Americans—it’s just for everyone,” she says. As a fifth-generation Chinese American, she has always felt very drawn to washi and adds that very few of the stores who carried her products were Japanese- or Asian-themed shops.
“There is a lot of interest in beautiful things. People know that things made in Japan are really high quality,” she says. “It’s amazing they’re still hand-making this in the world today when everything seems to be automated. It’s important for me to support the art.”
Perhaps Lee is most excited to dive back into the creative process. She’s looking forward to working with the Japanese factory on custom colors and new contemporary combinations for her wedding line products. “Where I am right now is exactly where I want to be,” she says. “It’s also where I belong.”
To support Meredith’s “World of Washi,” visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/tro/washi by Dec. 11.
More information on Lee’s washi is available at www.therareorchid.com.